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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2004 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Jonathan Turley

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A special kind of justice | Power and principle have rarely coexisted well in Washington. However, even in a city that long ago lost the ability to blush, the Wednesday vote of Republican House members on Majority Leader Tom DeLay's possible indictment left many breathless. The Republicans did away with an ethics rule that would have forced DeLay to resign from his post if he is, as some expect, indicted in Texas for criminal acts related to fundraising. It is only the latest act of collusion by House members in supporting DeLay, who has become the "Teflon Don" of Beltway politics.

It was only a few weeks ago that the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct reprimanded the Texas Republican for violating House ethics rules in a different controversy. It was vintage Beltway theater. The reprimand was crafted to avoid any real punishment of DeLay, who immediately claimed a curious type of victory and thanked the committee for offering "guidance" on such issues.

Now DeLay faces the possibility of an actual criminal charge in Texas. Close associates of DeLay have been indicted in Austin on charges involving illegal fundraising solicitations and campaign contributions. DeLay wanted the Republicans to take control of the Texas House of Representatives before redistricting. However, it is illegal to solicit or spend corporate funds on political campaigns in Texas. One of the letters seized by federal investigators is from a vice president of a natural gas company that reads: "Dear Congressman DeLay: I am pleased to forward our contribution of $25,000 for the TRMPAC that we pledged at the June 2, 2002, fundraiser." TRMPAC stands for DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority political action committee.

DeLay is a curious figure in a town that tends to devour those who stumble and fall. His brushes with indictments and reprimands only seem to add to his mystique in the way that the late New York don John Gotti grew in popularity with every hung jury. Indeed, in his triumphant public statements, DeLay seemed to morph with the character of Big Jule in "Guys and Dolls," who proudly proclaims his record as "33 arrests, no convictions." The scene is a riot because Big Jule is so out of touch with the measure of good society. In the halls of Congress, DeLay appears even more out of touch with the measure of good government. Yet his most recent reprimands only highlight a fatally flawed and feeble congressional ethics system, where ethical recidivists are allowed to flourish.

Like Big Jule, DeLay long has been the feared heavy in the House. A former exterminator, DeLay is called "The Hammer" for his use of power to punish those who fail to show, as Big Jule's friend Harry the Horse would say, "the proper respect" for his positions.

DeLay seems to thrive in the borderland between the merely unethical and the outright criminal. He has spent the last 10 years embroiled in scandals involving allegations of bribery, retaliation, criminal fundraising violations and unlawful campaign practices.

In its recent report, the Republican-led House ethics committee found that DeLay offered to help elect the son of retiring Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) to Congress in exchange for Smith's vote in favor of the controversial Medicare prescription-drug bill. (Smith originally claimed DeLay mentioned $100,000 in contributions, but later stated that no specific money figure was conveyed.) As the committee stated in its report, "It is improper for a member to offer or link support for the personal interests of another member as part of a quid pro quo to achieve a legislative goal." Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and Smith also were reprimanded for ethics violations in the matter.

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It was a result so contrived it would have made even Big Jule blush. The committee first made sure to reprimand DeLay and his accuser. The report then avoided any real punishment such as censure while imposing a symbolic punishment (that was gleefully accepted by DeLay). Then, the committee released the report minutes before the first presidential debate, an old Washington technique to bury a negative report in the crush of coverage of a bigger story.

While he's a big supporter of tough sentencing laws, DeLay is fortunate that there is no three-strikes law for the unethical. Consider his other scandals:

  • DeLay was reprimanded for his role in allegedly soliciting a $25,000 contribution from Westar Energy while the company was seeking a special deal in the energy bill.

  • DeLay was reprimanded for asking the Federal Aviation Administration to track the private plane used by Texas Democratic state legislators who were avoiding a vote on redistricting--a bill that DeLay was pushing in Texas' capital.

  • Delay was given a "private rebuke" in 1999 for threatening retaliation against a Washington trade association for the unspeakable offense of hiring a Democrat as a lobbyist.

  • DeLay was implicated in 1996 in a scandal over a shadowy group called Triad Management, ultimately leading to an FBI investigation and a huge fine for a Texas businessman.
Ultimately, the most recent DeLay investigation says more about Congress than it does about the House majority leader. Congress has ethics rules riddled with loopholes, ambiguities and permitted conflicts of interests. Ethics violations are investigated by other members who critics charge are selected for their "reliability."

The solution is obvious. Congress should create an independent office of ethics. Congress also needs to rewrite the ethics rules, which are written to be so ambiguous and vague that the House ethics committee has absolute leeway in finding or ignoring violations.

DeLay may be happy with the performance of the House committee, but there is little reason for the public to celebrate. Until there are serious reforms, Justice "DeLayed" will remain justice denied in Congress.

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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University Law School. Click here to visit his website. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Jonathan Turley